ESTO Profile: A Conversation with George Komar

EarthzineArticles, Original, Sections, Technology

One of NASA's Global Hawk aircraft takes off from Wallops Island. The aircraft was flying to study a low-pressure area as part of The Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel mission (HS3)and is equipped with ESTO technology. Credit: NASA/Lori Losey.

One of NASA’s Global Hawk aircraft takes off from Wallops Island. The aircraft was flying to study a low-pressure area as part of The Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel mission (HS3) and is equipped with ESTO technology. Credit: NASA/Lori Losey.

What do a Texas air quality research campaign, an ongoing NASA hurricane mission, and an aerosol camera on the International Space Station have in common?

These three NASA projects—as well as countless others throughout the years—rely on technology funded by the Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO).

Established in 1998 by NASA Headquarters, ESTO is one of the U.S. space agency’s longest-running technology programs. Under the leadership of George Komar, ESTO has an impressive portfolio of technology investments that boasts nearly 700 active and completed tasks.

The primary motivation for establishing ESTO was the need to update technology used in Earth science and Earth observing missions, Komar said in an interview with Earthzine.

George Komar. Courtesy ESTO.

George Komar. Courtesy ESTO.

“We needed new technology, because the Earth science missions used the same instruments over and over,‰Û Komar said. ‰ÛÏWe said, ‰Û÷How could you do that better and smarter?’‰Û

ESTO was created to find an answer to that question.

‰ÛÏI was asked to take a look at how to (improve Earth science instruments),‰Û he said. ‰ÛÏThat’s when we started the office and the Instrument Incubator Program.‰Û In the program, ESTO solicits proposals every few years, funds selected instrument projects, and makes annual measurements of the technology’s readiness level. ESTO runs a similar program for information systems, as well as a space flight validation program for instruments destined for flight missions.

ESTO tracks the development of all of its technology investments, and the results are published in an annual report. In the most recently completed solicitation cycle, ESTO awarded technology grants totaling $67 million over the three-year period.

‰ÛÏTwenty-five percent of our investments should advance at least one technology readiness level in the time we hold them, and they do. We’re actually more in the 30 to 40 percent range,‰Û said Komar. ESTO also looks for technology that will create a new capability. ‰ÛÏWe want to come up with a new way of doing something or make a new measurement entirely.‰Û

Though ESTO expects its investments to advance throughout their time in the program, Komar is quick to reassure technologists that it’s OK to fail. ‰ÛÏIt’s kind of shocking to some people because everyone is so success-oriented. But if you have a piece of technology that’s pushing the state-of-the-art and you have a big problem with it, you’ll learn from the problem and improve the technology,‰Û Komar explained. ‰ÛÏIt’s OK to fail in technology development, because we don’t have a launch date like a flight mission does.‰Û

This philosophy is reminiscent of a quote attributed to 19th-century American inventor Thomas Edison. Reportedly, Edison responded to questions about his many failed attempts at creating the incandescent light bulb with, ‰ÛÏI have not failed 1,000 times. I have merely found 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb.‰Û In 1880, Edison filed the patent that led to the modern incandescent light bulb.

ESTO’s working philosophy is characterized by four main tenets. ‰ÛÏOur mantra is that we’re science-driven, we’re competed, we’re actively managed, and we’re communicated,‰Û said Komar. Science-driven in that ‰ÛÏthe science community tells us what’s important to them, and then we try to match that by soliciting appropriate technology,‰Û he added. ‰ÛÏFor example, we’re going into lasers and radar now, which will make a big difference in the future of Earth science. It’s very difficult and expensive to get those instruments into space. We try to make them smaller, so that it’s more affordable.‰Û

Komar said competition and communication are key to ESTO’s success. ‰ÛÏWe’ve been doing this for 15 years, and we feel that you get the best of the best through competition.‰Û Komar also emphasized the need to communicate developments in technology to those who might be interested in its use.

According to Komar, the office makes an effort to solicit proposals from teams outside of NASA. ‰ÛÏA large part of (the funding) goes to NASA, but we also fund industry, academia, and universities,‰Û said Komar. ‰ÛÏWe feel universities are the most creative, because you have young people thinking outside the box. If we want something radical or different, we count on universities.‰Û

For example, Steven Reising, a professor at Colorado State University, was selected in the most recent round of project solicitations to develop technology for a Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Working with JPL scientists and a collaborator at the University of California, Los Angeles, Reising will lead the team in developing an internally-calibrated, wide-band airborne radiometer.

Komar says the ESTO impact within NASA is apparent. ‰ÛÏThings that we invest in are finding their way into the Airborne Science Program for flight validation. We just finished building a new instrument that measures ocean color in the near infrared. That’s never been done before—it’s a new measurement.‰Û Though ESTO is physically located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, Maryland, the office is a function of NASA Headquarters. ‰ÛÏWe’re not center-centric,‰Û said Komar. ‰ÛÏWe’re very fair and equitable with our funding.‰Û

So whether it’s a spectrometer to study air quality, a Doppler radar to help scientists understand the inner workings of hurricanes, or a space-based lidar system to study aerosols, the success of many ESTO-funded instruments demonstrate the program’s strength, he said.

ESTO’s success also can be measured in its longevity, according to Komar. ‰ÛÏUsually, technology programs come and go, but ESTO has been around for 15 years, and we’re very proud of that.‰Û

Komar credits the ESTO staff with the office’s success. ‰ÛÏPeople make the difference,‰Û Komar said. ‰ÛÏYou have to have a vision to go forward, and it’s important for your people to be the creators of that vision.‰Û


An aircraft equipped with ESTO technology that will fly an air quality research campaign over Houston, Texas, in September 2013. Credit: NASA.